Garagiola proud of US team he helped build
MIAMI -- As Team USA broke up after a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico on Friday night at Marlins Park that eliminated the U.S. from the World Baseball Classic, the herculean effort of putting together the always-fluid 28-man roster should not go unnoticed.
Joe Garagiola Jr., the team's general manager, was the man behind the scenes from Day 1, helping manager Joe Torre coordinate the effort.
The quest ended one win short of another trip to the championship round, beginning Sunday at AT&T Park, but Garagiola had a ball while it lasted, and it stoked his desire to be a GM again.
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"The juices are flowing," Garagiola said during an interview with MLB.com in the U.S. dugout the other day.
He had a big smile on his face as he said it.
To be sure, Torre made the calls to all the players, judging interest level and commitment. But while Torre was engaged in his day job as Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, Garagiola offered advice and took care of the paperwork.
It helped that Garagiola works for Torre in MLB baseball ops, handling on-field disciplinary matters among other things. It also helped that Garagiola was once one of the most highly-regarded GMs in baseball. Remember it was Garagiola's D-backs that defeated Torre's Yankees on the final pitch of the 2001 World Series after the Yanks had won the Fall Classic four times in the previous five years.
Garagiola left the D-backs for the Commissioner's Office in 2005 after controlling interest of the team switched from founder Jerry Colangelo to Ken Kendrick. As the expansion team's first GM, Garagiola knew a thing or two about building a team from scratch. And he used that skill-set to quickly help Torre build a Team USA roster this past offseason.
That process was collaborative. "We sat down and had lists of names," Garagiola said. "You can call them wish lists. All the while keeping focus on what Joe and I agreed should be the focus: to construct a team that was built to win, which is to say players with defined roles, addressing specific needs."
When the list was culled, names were given to Tony Clark of the Players' Association and inqueries about individual interest, desire and availability were made by the union. As soon as Clark was given a positive response, Garagiola was notified and Torre got on the horn.
It produced a group of players like David Wright, Ryan Braun, Brandon Phillips, Jimmy Rollins, R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong, and all the way down the list, who were honored to play for the U.S. The players who couldn't commit for one reason or another were allowed to just stay in their respective Spring Training camps.
Although that group didn't produce America's first championship in the third Classic, the players had a good time trying.
"All you can do is just tip your cap," Phillips said after the 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico on Friday night. "They did their job, we didn't. What more can I really say? I wish them the best of luck. I've just got to go back to [Reds camp in] Goodyear, Ariz. which I don't want to go back to, so it [stinks], man. It [stinks] bad. I wanted to go to San Fran so bad. But all I can say is I enjoyed the journey, man. It was nice. I hope I can do this again and represent the USA and wear that red, white and blue on my chest again."
In the end, Team USA couldn't weather the injuries to Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira and Wright, who with a .438 batting average, a game-winning grand slam, a bases-clearing double and 10 RBIs was on his way to being the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
Teixeira went down with a strained tendon in his right wrist swinging a weighted bat while hitting off a tee just before the first pitch of Team USA's first exhibition game. Wright was a late scratch before Thursday night's crucial loss to the Dominican with what was later diagnosed as a strained intercostal muscle on his right side.
With the team already training in Arizona and the beginning of Pool D play only days away, Garagiola and Torre had to scuffle for a replacement. They went to the nearby Royals camp in Surprise and grabbed Eric Hosmer for two reasons, Garagiola said at the time: He was a lefty hitter for a predominately righty-swinging lineup and he didn't have to fly in from Florida on short notice.
As it turned out, Hosmer started all six games at first base, batted .200, grounded out with the bases loaded and the potential tying and winning runs on base in the eighth inning on Friday night to end the last U.S. rally.
Wright was a huge loss in the final two games, as the U.S. struggled to put runs on the board. He couldn't be replaced in this round, but the U.S. brain trust had already confirmed that Padres third baseman Chase Headley would play in the semifinals. The Americans just didn't get there.
Still, it was playoff baseball in March and Braun highly recommended the experience. That's a credit to the team Torre and Garagiola put together.
"For me, this is the second time I had the opportunity to play in the WBC and both of them were two of the top experiences I ever had as a baseball player," Braun said. "And I would certainly highly recommend it to everybody. I would think anybody, who watched the games, could see the passion and the energy. Just the atmosphere, environment, for all these games is really special.
"I think it far surpasses anything we experience in the regular season at any point. It really is playoff-type atmosphere, playoff-type baseball, and I would certainly highly encourage everybody and anybody that has an opportunity to say, 'Yes,' because it's definitely something that's pretty special."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.